Hey hateful hater, big churches can be beautiful too.

Worship

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Or: Some churches I like and why megachurch pastors should be reading the cultural tea-leaves.

Even friends are beginning to ask, “Why are you so anti-mega church?” I would like to say once and for all that I am NOT against churches being large. I hope every church preaching Jesus grows. I want the Kingdom of God to be extended. I believe the local church in mission to the world is the biblical, historical, and reasonable way for that to happen.

I am also not against large church pastors. Some of my best friends are large church pastors (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). But, honestly, I don’t know a single large church pastor who does not love God and want others to know Christ. I am certain there are pastors who are shysters-there are shysters in every profession. I just don’t know of any of those, and I know a pile of pastors.

So what am I doing critiquing the dominant model of church on the American landscape? Merely raising questions about uncritically held assumptions. Why? Because EVERY good thing has a downside. Unanticipated consequences exist for every “win.” God can and does bring good out of bad…but correspondingly, every good thing has bad that can come from it. I am simply looking at our current popular ministry practices and asking, “Does anyone see the backside of this coin?” Is anyone asking, “Where will we end up if we keep driving down this road?” I have been quite surprised at the defensiveness this has caused. A defensiveness, not of core issues of the faith, but of a vision of the church less than 40 years old.

Be that as it may, I do believe big can be beautiful. I would like to list a few large churches that I really like. This is not an exhaustive list of “good” churches but a brief sample of some doing things well…

Redemption Church, Phoenix: (6000ish) They are multi-site, but each site has its own teaching pastor. They develop lots of mission-thinking preachers and leaders. Each pastor teaches the Bible in 45 minute sermons, and are packed with youth and young adults seeking “meat.”

Scottsdale Bible Church, Scottsdale: (7000ish) They planted churches and then began to do multi-site video-venues. I don’t like that part. However, they have trained and developed leaders for their own and many other churches, and they have actively given their people and money away to scads of other churches.

Mission Community Church, Gilbert: A large, fast-growing suburban church that reinvented itself as the Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God” church. They have an army of suburbanites thinking about giving time, talent and treasure to create good in the world.

New City Church, Phoenix: (600) Discovering liturgy, developing young adults, trying to take people deeper. This fast growing church is riding the wave of young adults moving to downtown Phoenix.

Church of the Resurrection, Chicago: (1300ish) They have tripled in the last five years, almost all with college and young adults. Liturgy, charismatic gifts, an army of rotating musical genres, robust Christian education from Wheaton College professors, and a youngish senior pastor who might be the oldest guy in the building.

Church of the Incarnation, Dallas: (1500ish) A fast growing traditional church in the central city. Lots of different musical genres, solid liturgy, strong teaching. Decided they needed to raise double-digit millions to expand. Raised almost twice that much.

Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan’s Island: (1000ish) Great youth ministry led to great men’s ministry. A church specializing in venues of 300 or smaller for services to become the church where “everybody knows your name.” An interesting vision in a small beach town.

St. Barnabas on the Desert, Scottsdale: (700) Not a large church, but my money is on them becoming one. They have several hundred folks involved in contemplative practice, preach from a humbling level of prayerfulness (the senior pastor prays like 25 hrs a week), a group of retirees will serve anyone, anytime, anywhere, and they have a creative young staff.

There are a lot of churches that love people, have committed volunteers and want to share the Good News of Jesus. What do the churches on this list have in common?

1) They teach the Bible 2) They value young people 3) They foster relationships 4) They have a desire to take people deeper in Christ and do that by helping them engage in Christian practices and serve rather than just learning dogma 5) and more and more, they are exploring the totality of Christian history as part of those practices.

So, there are big churches that I really like. And, yeah, in light of a growing mountain of data[1], I do have serious questions about the way popular Christianity is doing Church and whether it has staying power. Again, I am not criticizing motives but rather methods. I am leery of the way the Church has hitched its wagon to the culture of preference. When the culture changes, and it is changing rapidly, what will a church built on being “relevant” and “just like” the culture do? Will it give up beliefs and sit with empty buildings? Or will it change its theology to remain “relevant”? For centuries large swaths of the church embraced slavery to keep the seats filled. What will this generation’s slavery be? What will pastors be willing to preach or willing to stop preaching to keep the lights on? 

Pastors can defensively criticize the messengers or look at the data and try to be in front of the trends when they arrive. The failure to anticipate change in a big-box facility has catastrophic potential. If current directions continue, the donut hole of young adults will become entire missing generations.

The original mega-church, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold in bankruptcy to a new Roman Catholic diocese in 2012. The Crystal Cathedral will not be an isolated instance. That is not “hating.” It is sounding a warning before our suburban churches, built as surrogate main streets for housing tracts without town-centers, become ghost towns. Big can be beautiful. It can also be sold at auction to the highest bidder when the culture takes a left-turn evangelicalism missed.Beautiful-Bodie


[1] Including: Luis Lugo’s, “The Decline of Institutional Religion”(goo.gl/DiR6A), which describes 2008’s Pew Forum report that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009 (goo.gl/s1vnv). Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s (Time, 2009, Lifeway, 2010). Last year the Pew Forum confirmed the data in a follow-up carried in USA Today (http://wp.me/p2Gq9e-4u). As did this year’s “Hemorrhaging the Faith” study from Canada.

What’s so uncool about cool churches?

Unintended Consequences: How the “relevant” church and segregating youth is killing Christianity.

I recently spent six-months doing a rotation as a hospital chaplain. One day I received a page (Yes, hospitals actually still use pagers). Chaplains are generally called to the rooms of people who look ill: People gray with kidney disease, or yellow with liver failure, discouraged amputees, nervous cancer patients. In this room, however, was a strikingly attractive 23 year-old young lady sitting up cheerfully in the hospital bed, holding her infant daughter and chatting with family and friends.

Confused, I stepped outside and asked her nurse, “Why did I get paged to her room?”

“Oh, she looks fabulous. She also feels great and is asking to go home,” the nurse said.

“…And you are calling me because?” I asked in confusion.

The nurse looked me directly in the eye and said: “Because we will be disconnecting her from life support in three days and you will be doing her funeral in four.”

The young lady had taken too much Tylenol. She looked and acted fine. She even felt fine, but she was in full-blown liver failure. She was dying and couldn’t bring herself to accept the diagnosis.

Today I have the sense that we are at the same place in the church. The church may look healthy on the outside, but it has swallowed the fatal pills. The evidence is stacking up: the church is dying and, for the most part, we are refusing the diagnosis.

What evidence? Take a gander at these two shocking items:

1. 20-30 year olds attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents and ¼ the rate of their grandparents. Think about the implication for those of us in youth ministry: Thousands of us have invested our lives in reproducing faith in the next generation and the group we were tasked with reaching left the church when they left us.

2. 61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back! (Time Magazine, 2009) Even worse: 78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church, most to never return. (Lifeway, 2010) Please read those last two statistics again. Ask yourself why attending a church with nothing seems to be more effective at retaining youth than our youth programs.

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is…

…empty churches.

We build big groups and count “decisions for Christ,” but the Great Commission is not to get kids to make decisions for Jesus but to make disciples for Him. We all want to make Christians for life, not just for high school. We have invested heavily in youth ministry with our lives specifically in order engage youth in the church. Why do we have such a low return on our investment?

What are we doing in our Youth Ministries that might be making people less likely to attend church as an adult?

What is the “pill” we have overdosed on? I believe it is “preference.” We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they “prefer” is a road, that once you go down it, has no end. Tim Elmore in his 2010 book entitled Generation iY calls this “the overindulged Generation.” They ask for more and more, and we give it to them. And more and more the power of God is substituted for market-driven experience. In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

  1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?
  2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?
  3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?
  4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.
  5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation.We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:
    1. Concert hall (worship)
    2. Comedy club (sermon)
    3. Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization:  It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Here is an example: Your church. Does it look like this?

If you look closely, you will see the photo on the right is of a nightclub, rather than a church. Can you see what I mean about “relevance” and the clean Christian version of what the world offers? Your youth room is a pretty good indicator of what your church will look like 15 years from now. Because of the principle “What you win them with, you win them to,” your students today will expect their adult church to look like your youth room.

In summary, “Market Driven” youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying…

…“Bye-bye.”

What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need. The beauty is that Christianity already knows how to do this.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

The beauty of where we are today is that, unlike the girl in the hospital bed, our fatal pill could still be rejected. It is not too late. We can leave the culture-centered models we have been following for more Christ-centered ones. More ancient ones. More rooted ones. And the most beautiful thing is that students actually enjoy them.

So many have commented on this post in the last month that I did a follow-up: O Yeah! And other things I wish I would have said on “Cool Church.”